Courtship- A Father’s Duty

So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well…

– 1 Corinthians 7:38

One film that each of our daughters watched just prior to her wedding was the classic comedy, “Father of the Bride.” The opening scene shows Annie, now twenty-two and having just returned from Rome, excitedly sharing her explosive good news with her father, George Banks:

Annie: Okay! I met somebody in Rome. Um, he’s an American. Uh, he’s from L.A., actually. And um, his name’s Bryan MacKenzie. And he’s this completely wonderful, wonderful, amazing man, and…well, we started seeing each other, a lot.. and, um…we fell in love. Ha! Ha! It actually happened! And, uh, we’ve decided to get married…which means that I’m engaged! Ha! I’m engaged! I’m getting married! Ha![1]

What’s missing from this picture? George Banks is not only caught off guard, but he never even met this Bryan MacKenzie. He is like many dads today, completely removed from the courtship of their daughters. Perhaps the thought of a parent, especially a father, taking the parental oversight of a daughter’s courtship has an antiquated Victorian ring to many people. The modern parent—and even many professing Christian parents—has totally abdicated this God-given role.

Instead, many Christian families today let their sons and daughters follow the unbiblical practice often referred to as “recreational dating.” Typically, this works something like this—it’s Friday night! Date night! A young lady gets a text, “W2HO” (Want to hang out?). A cute guy drives by, honks his horn, and off they go on their “date.” For many, dating begins in the early teens without any oversight, and the opportunities that can lead to sexual sin are many. Recreational dating often leads to fornication. Fast forward to the point where the daughter finds herself emotionally head over heels. From there it is not a big jump to marriage. Recreational dating is a system that compromises purity, lacks discernment, discourages commitment, and can often be a recipe for a broken marriage.

The pursuit of God’s will in marriage begins with parental oversight. There has been a recent resurgence in Christian circles in what has been popularly referred to as “biblical courtship.” It is beyond the scope of this book to plumb the depths of courtship. There are several good resources I would recommend every parent and single person read and discuss together.[2]

The term “biblical courtship” is a little misleading. It has a ring of rigid monolithic steps that must be followed in every pursuit of marriage. In fact, many of these steps are more pragmatic application of God’s Word than firm biblical steps. At the heart of biblical courtship is parental oversight. More precisely, paternal oversight. God has given the father authority to guide his daughter as she pursues God’s will in marriage. Although this book focuses primarily on a father’s role in his daughter’s courtship, a father’s authority also extends to the son as long as he lives at home. The father has been given authority over his daughter to protect her purity, discern the spiritual heart of the young suitor, and Lord willing, grant permission and give the young man his daughter’s hand in marriage.[3]

This role of the father is nothing new.  It’s not even Victorian.  It’s biblical!  For those of you who look to God’s Word as your sole source of authority in life, you will find this to be God’s pattern taught throughout the Bible!  Take up your Bible and join me in a quick overview of the father’s role leading up to marriage.

Henry Smith, the sixteenth century puritan preacher known as “silver-tongued Smith,” first takes us to Genesis 2:18 as a reminder that this paternal authority finds its origin with the first married couple in the Garden of Eden:

In the first institution of marriage, when there was no father to give consent, then our Heavenly Father gave His consent: God supplied the place of the father, and brought His daughter unto her husband, and ever since, the father after the same manner, hath offered his daughter unto the husband…[4]

 As we turn to the book of Exodus we discover the father’s role in marriage predates the Mosaic Law. “And if a man entices a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely endow her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuse to give her unto him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins” (Exodus 22:16-17).

Here we have a man who sexually seduces a young lady, causing her to lose her virginity.  The couple desires to marry.   The young man informs the father of his intent and brings a dowry.  Notice that there is an important condition in verse 17, If her father utterly refuse to give her unto him….   God has given the father the authority to accept or refuse the giving of his daughter in marriage.

After the giving of the Mosaic law, God brought the Jews into the land to possess it.  He promised to deliver them from their enemies and gave them this command: “Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son” (Deuteronomy 7:3).

           Next. we read in Nehemiah how this giving and taking of sons and daughters was reaffirmed by God’s people who covenanted together, “And that we would not give our daughters unto the people of the land, nor take their daughters for our sons” (Nehemiah 10:30).

An objector might stop at this point in protest, “That was then and this is now! What about our twenty-first century culture? We no longer have arranged marriages and expensive dowries.” This raises the question of whether a twenty-first century Christian father still has oversight of his daughter in matters of marriage.

Let’s keep reading!  As we turn in our Bibles to the New Testament our Lord reaffirms this teaching in Matthew 24:38 and even extends it to His second coming and the resurrection of the dead in Matthew 22:29-30.  Mark Chanski concludes, “Fatherly giving in marriage held sway from creation to Noah and should be practiced on earth until the Lord’s return and final resurrection of the dead.” [5]

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul divides women into two categories: virgins and wives (1 Corinthians 7:34). The virgin was the non-married daughter. If she is not divorced or widowed, Paul continues to reason that she remain under her living father’s authority. He adds that it is the father that gives his virgin in marriage (v. 38)[6]. This biblical truth has passed down today through ceremonial tradition. Most weddings today open with the father walking his daughter down the aisle. When the pastor asks, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” the father replies, “I do.” However, for the Christian father, this should be more than mere symbolism. The giving away of a daughter should carry with it an affirmation that he has faithfully adhered to the biblical mandate to oversee his daughter’s courtship. By saying, “I do,” he gives his whole-hearted approval and affirms before God and the gathered witnesses that he believes this couple will be equally yoked.

In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, John Calvin rightly concludes:  

Now this passage serves to establish the authority of parents, which ought to be held sacred, as having its origin in the common rights of nature. Now if in other actions of inferior moment no liberty is allowed to children, without the authority of their parents, much less is it reasonable that they should have liberty given them in the contracting of marriage. And that has been carefully enacted by civil law, but more especially by the law of God. ….Let us know, therefore, that in disposing of children in marriage, the authority of parents is of first-rate importance, provided they do not tyrannically abuse it, as even the civil laws restrict it.[7]

This raises the question about the adult young lady who no longer lives at home. Is she still under her father’s authority when it comes to courtship? The Scriptures do not directly speak of this intermediary category of single women. As we have seen, Paul divides ladies into only two categories: married and unmarried. We read of Lydia, who was living independently of her parents (Acts 16:15).

However, we do not know if Lydia was widowed, never married, or whether her parents were still living.

In biblical times, if a woman was married and her husband passed away, it seems clear that she was no longer under her father’s headship and therefore free to marry. In 1 Corinthians 7:39, Paul writes, “The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.”  Even then, it would be both wise and honoring for a widowed daughter to seek the counsel and blessing of her living father.

There seems to be a tendency for our theological understanding to conform to our downwardly spiraling culture. We saw this when the radical feminism of the 1960s became mainstream and had a transformative effect on the church. Many denominations, as well as independent churches, who historically held to the Bible teaching that church office bearers are gender specific, suddenly changed their theology and abandoned their historical understanding of church polity.  We see the same shift currently taking place with the ordination of homosexuals in certain church denominations along with the sanctioning of same sex marriage.

Why do I mention this? Because there is currently a similar shift taking place in the teaching regarding a father’s roll in courtship. There has been a long historical understanding that Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 was giving fathers the mandate to guide his daughter’s heart through the emotional waters of courtship. The common teaching often preached today is that Paul was not speaking of fathers and daughters, but rather fathers and the young men who pursue their daughters. This leaves the Christian daughter to proceed toward marriage independent of any paternal guidance. To show you how prevalent this teaching is today, I have added an appendix wherein is an evaluation of an extensive survey I took of pastors from many denominational backgrounds on this very subject. If you are one who normally skips over appendices, I recommend reading it anyway. You might be surprised by my findings.

Paul gives a concluding warning to fathers not to act maliciously against the best interest of their daughter. In other words, with headship comes responsibility.

A loving father, who seeks the purity and blessing for his daughter, will prayerfully evaluate the heart of any interested young man. If he finds him falling short biblically, he has the God-given authority to say “no” to the young man. Dads, giving your daughter’s hand in marriage is more than walking down the aisle of the church; it encompasses the authority to give your approval. Young single ladies, this requires you to trust your father as he pursues God’s will on your behalf. You are witnessing your father’s love in action. Remember, to trust in God is to trust the one that He has graciously placed in authority over you, your father.

Why is this parental oversight so important? It is the God-given means by which a father can discern the heart and intentions of the person desiring to court his daughter.  Without spiritual oversight, a young lady is tempted to judge a young man by his outward appearance rather than on his heart. This protects single ladies from being swept away by a man with bursting biceps and wavy blond hair who makes her heart soar, but clouds her ability to discern the absence of spiritual life.

Several years ago, a young man wanted to date one of my daughters. I asked him if he would meet me the next day at a local coffee shop. I knew my daughter was smitten by this young cowboy. He shared with me a short testimony of his faith in Christ. I asked him what he wanted to do with his life. I was shocked by his quick reply, “I want to be a country singer!”

“Oh really,” I replied, trying to keep a serious face. “How do you plan to do that?” He gave me his five year plan that began with playing in local bars until he could make it big in Nashville. I brought our conversation to a quick halt by informing him that he would have to pursue his dream without my daughter.

Dads, ask the hard questions of those who are pursing your children. Listen carefully to their testimonies. Inquire about their walk with the Lord of their pastors and other spiritual leaders who know them. Pray to God for wisdom.

I remember another occasion; one of my daughters told a young man who attended the same out-of-town college and wanted to date her that he had to talk first to her dad. He flew into town for three days with the objective of winning my approval. He seemed very likeable. He gave me all the right answers to the questions I asked. However, as we came to the last day of his visit, I had the unsettled feeling that I still didn’t know his heart. I prayed that night and asked God, “How can I know this young man’s heart in one day?” I remembered the words of our Lord, “But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man” (Matthew 15:18). It suddenly struck me! His words are connected to his heart! I changed my strategy. Instead of asking questions, I would just listen to his words.

The next day I told him to hop in the car; we were going to take a day trip to Yellowstone. My itinerary purposely allotted for a lot of windshield time. I asked a few open-ended questions, but mainly I just listened! There were long awkward spans of silence at first, but on the way home, he began to speak nonstop. He spoke very critically of his theology classes. He didn’t know why anyone would want to know theology. I began to hear a heart that was opposed to growing in grace. Then I heard the words of a young man whose passion was clearly for the things of this world. He then told me that he had made a profession of faith as a young boy, but followed this up with a confession that he didn’t believe that there was any spiritual fruit in his life. I offered up an exclamatory prayer of thanksgiving for God’s clear answer to my prayer.

What if you are unmarried and have an unbelieving father or a father who is disengaged in your pursuit of a spouse from God? It is always wise to go to your earthly father and seek advice. If you do not have a dad who will step up to the plate and help you discern God’s will, then seek out other counsel. The important point is, don’t go solo in such an important decision. Go to the elders of your church whose ministry it is to shepherd your soul. Perhaps you have brothers who are spiritually mature and wise. Go with a willingness to follow their wise counsel. This will help protect you from making a foolish or emotional decision which might bring lifelong, painful consequences.

We read how Esau left the safety of the Old Testament custom of the arranged marriage. Apparently, without parental oversight or counsel, he chose a Hittite woman as a wife. This sad choice became a grief to Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 26:34-35).

A more recent reminder comes to us from the marriage of John Wesley to Molly Vazeille. Biographers have described it as “one of the greatest blunders he ever made” and “a preposterous union.” The marriage was a train wreck from the beginning. What went wrong? John suffered a great loss when his engagement to Grace Murray failed, and he had vowed to seek his brother Charles’ counsel before marrying in the future. But less than three years later, he proceeded alone and hastily announced that he would marry Molly Vazeille. It was a marriage marked by jealousy, strife, and later separation.  John Hampson of Manchester “once entered a room unannounced to find

Molly dragging her husband across the floor by his hair.”[8]  What made this an unhappy marriage? Certainly Molly’s heart was not right. However, much of their heartaches lay at the feet of John’s hasty refusal to consult his brother Charles for marriage advice as he had earlier vowed.  

How does parental oversight work its way out in modern courtship? If a young single man is introduced to a young lady with whom he would like to pursue God’s will in marriage, he should first seek the counsel and direction of his own parents. Dads, it is now your duty to take this request seriously and search out the heart of the young lady before giving your approval. Subject to his father’s approval, the young man should then go to the young lady’s father and request permission to begin “courting” his daughter. Once again, Dad, this is an awesome responsibility given by God. It takes grace to discern the heart and intentions of a young man. It requires your time, prayers, counsel, and heavenly wisdom to know his heart. The daughter’s father should exercise due diligence to best know the heart and intentions of the suitor. This will take time. If her dad gives the green light to proceed, he should then set the parameters of the relationship to protect the purity of the couple as they seek together the will of God.

Young people, are you willing to trust God to work His will out through your father? Remember, your father loves you and wants nothing less than your happiness and God’s glory! A young man who refuses to come under the counsel of his parents gives great insight into how he will lead as a husband. The “my way or the highway” attitude will weaken the fabric of the home. The same is true with a young lady. If a single lady will not come under the authority of the headship of her father, it reflects a heart attitude that will not submit to the headship of her husband. Seventeenth century historian, Thomas Fuller, gives us these wise words: “If you would have a good wife, marry one who has been a good daughter.” What should dads and single people be looking for in the heart of the one who has come courting?

[1] Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, Father of the Bride Script, directed by Charles Shyer, (Touchstone Pictures, 1991).

[2] Douglas Wilson, Her Hand in Marriage: Biblical Courtship in the Modern World (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 1997); Joshua Harris, Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah Press, 2006).

[3] Genesis 24:3-14; Numbers 30:3-5; Deuteronomy 22:13-21; Psalm 78:63.

[4] Henry Smith, Sermon: “A Preparative to Marriage (1591)from the Works of Henry Smith, ed. T. Fuller, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: J. Nichol, 1866), Vol. 1, 4347.

[5] Mark Chanski, Manly Dominion in a passive-four-ball world, (Merrick, NY:  Calvary Press Publishing, 2004), 227.

[6] The ESV and NIV have translated this passage to refer to men who are betrothed to virgins rather than fathers of virgins (KJV, NKJV, NASB).  Please read the exposition of this passage in Appendix 2.

[7] John Calvin, The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1981), 267268.

[8] John Charles Pollock, John Wesley (London, England:  Hodder and Stoughton, 1989), 238.

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